by Michelle M. Tokarczyk
A Personal History of the Bronx River
In the park I slip off my shoes,
sit on the grass among the dandelions,
watch the waterfall cascade
into the river.
I’ve no idea of its constancy or strength
or how cold the water might feel
in my last autumn here.
But I sit letting it fill me,
like when I sit in Mass listening
to a language I can’t understand
but have learned to revere.
Did we think the river would
digest thousands of tires, stacks
of refrigerators, condoms
from uncountable nights
and adolescent afternoons,
even a wine press, unused,
but rusted right through?
Remnants of our restless lives,
forgotten passions, now sunken.
With the garbage extracted like
so many bad teeth and the water
cleansed, the fish that had died
or fled like everyone else
flip their fins under our eyes.
Learning to explore the river,
I strap on a life jacket, stretch
my legs into the kayak, push off.
The shores are thick with greenery.
Trees arch over the river, protecting it.
The current takes my boat as I twist
gently from the waist, guide
the boat floating downstream.
The South Bronx, 2011
The knife-edge of poverty
grazed our throats. We waited
for the blade to slit our arteries.
So many of us spun around cycles of need.
Days of hunger, nights of tears.
So many lost to guns, or needles, or flames.
But so many survived.
On Charlotte Street clean aluminum siding
reflects July’s sun. Proud flower beds
dot the trimmed grass. Modest fences
remind us families chose these spaces.
In Melrose a woman pushes a cart,
the laundry still warm, folded and stacked.
Her building’s a haven for the homeless,
who understand home the way
the thirsty understand water.
Three girls discarded into foster care
now call her mom. “I’m saved, now,
I’m saving children.”
She is saving. She will save.
She is one neighbor here.
Shopping at Alexander’s Bargain Basement
On Fordham Road off the Concourse
that used to be so grand
women scavenge the tables
chapped reddened hands
and circled eyes search
for the jacket like Jackie wore,
the green-checked shirtwaist
with only a slight imperfection.
Be quick, or someone else
will grab that find. Take the chance.
No return on final sale and who
has time or stomach to strip
in the dressing room. Flimsy
curtains revealing cellulite.
Dad, running errands for Granny,
loved a bargain, had to stop,
took his chances, found
the bin of girls’ shoes. Clearance.
Less than a buck apiece.
He bought a dozen pairs,
more or less our size, some
real leather. Came home
just as Nan and I were going to bed.
Mom let us stay up, watch him pull out
pair after pair, holding the soles
in his hands, twisting red oxfords
penniless loafers before we tried them on
and saw ourselves walking proud.
Michelle M. Tokarczyk’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Minnesota Review, Third Wednesday, and For a Living: The Poetry of Work, and her book The House I’m Running From was published by West End Press. Her family moved from the Bronx to Queens when she was 9, and she currently resides part time in Manhattan and teaches at a small liberal arts college in Maryland. These poems are from her book in progress Coming Back, about the Bronx from 1960 to the present; the “coming back” refers to the main character’s move from the borough as a child and desire to return in some way.
Thanks to Len Vivolo for use of a photo from Bronx Nostalgia.